Today, audiences can head to theaters to see the re-release of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 3-D. Regardless of how you feel about the much-maligned prequel, there’s no denying the Star Wars franchise made more than an impression on millions of moviegoers who experienced the magic of the first three films in theaters or on their TV screens. This week, EW‘s writers will be celebrating their complicated relationship with George Lucas’ beloved, yet contested, franchise with a series we call “How Star Wars changed my life.” And for those of you headed to the theaters this Friday… may the force be with you.
I can’t talk about Star Wars without admitting my age, because I am a member of that curious geek generation that grew up in the era between the two Star Wars trilogies. Return of the Jedi hit theaters on May 25, 1983. In a Time magazine cover story published that same month, George Lucas expressed a desire to take a long, maybe-permanent break from the franchise. “The book is finished,” he said, sounding exhausted. “I have put it on the shelf.” I was born two years later, and I do not remember a time when I was not constantly watching VHS copies of the Star Wars trilogy.
When you’re young, you can’t perceive any difference between recent history and the distant past, so when I read the famous line that opens every Star Wars movie — “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” — I felt as if I were watching a story whose origins stretched back impossibly far, into the very primordial shadows of our visible universe. The Star Wars franchise was less than a decade old, but as far as I was concerned, it had been around forever. It was older than my parents. It was older than my house. I can vividly remember one Sunday morning, when I was paging through the New Testament section of the picture Bible that my parents let me read in Church, when I suddenly realized that — chronologically speaking — Star Wars almost certainly takes place before the birth of Jesus. I suspect that’s when I started to be agnostic.
In 1992, I found a paperback edition of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire at the local supermarket. Around the same time, I started to notice Star Wars comic books hitting the shelves at the comic book store where I would spend an entire decade of allowance money. We always had Macintosh computers in my household, which meant I couldn’t play any of the cool videogames that my PC-loving friends were playing — but I could play games from the Apple loyalists at LucasArts, which included Rebel Assault (I was flying an X-Wing!) and Dark Forces (I was shooting stormtroopers!)
In hindsight, I can recognize what was happening: Star Wars was becoming a multimedia conglomerate. The franchise was expanding, exploring every possible moneymaking opportunity. Lucasfilm was reinventing the art of pop culture capitalism: Every new product was an advertisement for another product, and the brand would never end. This is a cynical and entirely accurate perspective that has absolutely nothing to do with the sheer joy I felt exploring the Star Wars universe when I was a kid. It felt as if Star Wars was growing with me — as if the Star Wars galaxy was rapidly expanding in concert with my own evolving consciousness. The whole thing peaked in 1996 with Shadows of the Empire, a multimedia event which was essentially a fourth Star Wars movie without an actual movie. Shadows told the story of Luke and Leia in the interval between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I bought the book. I bought the comic book. I played the videogame — an overlooked Nintendo 64 classic. Readers, I bought the freaking soundtrack of the novel.
Along the way, I learned to love pop culture. Studying Star Wars led, quite naturally, into studying other movies. I learned about the infuriatingly imprecise nature of the creative process from reading Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, a book filled with a million fascinating throwaway tidbits about the crafting of the Star Wars myth. Spending so much time in the Star Wars section of the bookstore led me, inevitably, to Star Trek, and then on to other science-fiction novels, and then finally just to books in general. I gradually evolved from being a Star Wars obsessive to being just an all-around pop culture obsessive.
Whenever I experience something now that wows me, something that leaves me reeling, something makes me feel as if I’ve witnessed a glorious new world, something that makes me see our own world in a new light — the energy I felt when I watched The Tree of Life, or when I first listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or when I played Shadow of the Colossus, or when I finally finished Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 — that is just an echo, a remnant, a grown-up reminder of the energy that consumed me when I was a kid sitting in a movie theater, early February 1997, watching the phrase “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” on the big screen for the first time in my life.
NEXT PAGE: And then everything changed.
Ah, but now we’re getting to it — the moment that Star Wars imperceptibly shifted, for me and for so many other people. Everyone knows the recent history of the series. The Special Editions that seemed less special the more we watched them. The prequels that proved endlessly disappointing (although there are some poor souls left numb by Episodes 1 and 2 who claim miserably that Revenge of the Sith is a good movie.) It is hard to conceive of a time when there will not be a constant flow of new Star Wars product. Currently, there is a series on Cartoon Network, and a massively multiplayer videogame, and today The Phantom Menace is kickstarting a lengthy re-release of the entire sextet in theaters.
Now, I hear good things about The Clone Wars, and I hear great things about The Old Republic. And when I look through Wookiepedia at the recent chronology of Star Wars books, I’m intrigued by the bleak Greek-Tragic turn the expanded universe seem to have taken. (The Skywalker family seems made to suffer, forever torn between good and evil, until sibling must kill sibling.) It is easy to be cynical about our era of mega-franchises, but fascinating stories often linger in the shadowy corners of multimedia universes. It is possible that the greatest Star Wars story has yet to be told.
And yet, I can never let go of the second lesson that the Star Wars franchise taught me: In life, and especially in pop culture, a healthy amount of skepticism is absolutely essential. When I was young, I did not really question anything about Star Wars. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why Return of the Jedi, nominally the epic conclusion to a thrilling galactic story, felt the need to reheat the concept of the Death Star. It didn’t immediately occur to me why having Greedo shoot first mattered. I didn’t conceive of Star Wars as a commercial property; I experienced it with the blind passion of a zealot.
In hindsight, though, it’s surprisingly easy — and oddly calming — to look at Star Wars from a place I would have never imagined when I was a child: The perspective of the real world. George Lucas spent the years after Return of the Jedi getting a costly divorce and making equally costly investments in special effects. At one point, he sold Pixar to Steve Jobs for $5 million. For all Lucas’ talk about wanting to make smaller, more personal films, he was a man who ran a company, and companies need to make money, and Star Wars was more successful 10 years after Return of the Jedi than anything else Lucasfilm had done: Willow, Howard the Duck, Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, wah-wahhhhh. Industrial Light and Magic was at the forefront of the digital effects movement, and The Phantom Menace feels less like a genuine movie than like an ILM demo reel — a demo reel which banked nearly a billion dollars. In the process, Phantom Menace also created a whole new method for creating a blockbuster: Years of Internet-assisted advertising and mock-buzz and multimedia branding. The movie itself wasn’t even important. (In this sense, the blitz around Shadows of the Empire looks even more prescient.)
We live now in a world where all big movies are sold that way. (Heck, The Avengers has been advertised, in one way or another, for nearly half a decade.) At the same time, we live in an era that tends to value the extreme reactions: Instant hatred or all-encompassing joy. We might kid ourselves into thinking that the Internet created this, but it really just facilitated an impulse that already existed. It’s easy to love something completely or loathe it entirely. It’s surprisingly difficult to approach something with clear eyes — to admit when a franchise you love has disappointed you (for me, the final two seasons of Lost) or, in turn, admit when a franchise you thought you hated surprised you (for me, Fast Five.)
But life is more interesting when you’re skeptical of everything. I wouldn’t want to be the same person I was in 1999, utterly and completely obsessed with Star Wars. I also wouldn’t want to be the opposite — one of the millions who will always be furious with George Lucas, who is dismissive of every stupid new Star Wars thing just because it’s not the same as the stupid Star Wars things we loved when we were kids. Star Wars taught me appreciate pop culture. It also taught me to be wary of blind fandom, to constantly re-examine my opinions and biases, to never assume that even my most beloved filmmakers and writers and musicians and artists were incapable of failure.
Star Wars didn’t just change my life; for awhile, it was my life. In that sense, The Phantom Menace taught me the best lesson of all: Sometimes, it’s better just to go outside.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich
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